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Federation First is a national campaign developed in 2016 by the National Governance Association to raise awareness of the advantages of federations to school improvement.
The government promotes multi academy trusts (MATs) as the best way for schools to work together, but it can be an enormous change for maintained schools, so why the one-way narrative? Instead of missing out on all the benefits of being part of a group of schools, why not consider federating first?
The government has said it wants all schools to convert to academy status by 2020 and many of these will become part of a MAT. However, in most cases schools still have autonomy over this decision and for many it is likely that the advantages to federation make it a good option.
A federation is where a number of maintained schools come together under one governing body. The schools’ individual governing bodies are disbanded and a new single over-arching governing body is formed. This becomes the accountable body for all the schools and sets the strategic direction for the group. This is sometimes referred to as a “hard” federation as opposed to a “soft” one, which is in effect a collaboration; we do not use these terms as they can cause confusion. Federation is not to be confused with collaboration, which is a less formal arrangement in which the governing bodies remain separate but establish a joint committee(s) for a specific purpose. The latest figures suggest that just over 1000 schools are part of a federation in England.
Federation can be a very effective group structure, providing maintained schools with the opportunity to form a group - without incurring legal costs - in order to improve the education of pupils. This enables governors and school leaders to focus on forming relationships between schools first, and then joint leadership, governance and business management. This can be done while still remaining a maintained school, so the process is much more focused on relationship building and producing tangible outcomes for pupils, instead of being dominated by legal changes in charity/company status and land ownership.
Federations are often formed to fast track school improvement or to improve capacity for small schools. The three main reasons for forming federations, identified by Ofsted in its report Leadership of more than one school, were:
Federations have the following advantages:
These benefits result in improved outcomes for pupils.
Federation also places schools in a much stronger position to subsequently convert to become a successful MAT. MATs and federations are not competing models; a federation can be a useful “stepping stone” to a MAT because:
There’s an increasing push for schools to form formal partnerships in which multiple schools come together under a single governing board. The government promotes multi academy trusts (MATs) as the best way to do this, but maintained federations can be just as successful, as well as being much easier to set up than MATs. Many schools overlook federation, or simply don’t understand what it involves. What’s more, current government legislation relating to the constitution of federated governing bodies is unwieldly: where there is no executive headteacher, the need to have the headteacher of each school on a federated governing body means that they can be large and inefficient.
Over the next year, we’ll be:
We are not suggesting “federating first” is the only route or the best option for all remaining maintained schools; it will depend on a number of factors including the size of the school and the local context. It may be preferable for a school to join an existing local MAT or federation rather than find partner schools for a new federation. The choice should lie with local schools as to how and when they wish to work together, but they need to have access to good information, which is currently sparse.
There is now considerable information to help you begin your conversation with your own governing body and other governing bodies:
Federation Champions are chairs and vice chairs of federated governing bodies who are available to talk about their experiences. Check out our Federation Champions here and if you’d like to get in touch with a Champion, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fancy becoming a Federation Champion? Get in touch, email email@example.com
NGA Gold members can call the GOLDline for bespoke and specific advice on federating.
We offer support for governing bodies considering federation through our Consultancy and Training Service. For more information see the Consultancy and Training webpage or email firstname.lastname@example.org.